Some may contend that if a singular quote requires further explanation then it shouldn’t be quoted, at least not by itself without its proper context. Perhaps that’s true — quotes that are timeless are the ones that stand on their own. Nevertheless, while I believe the truth of today’s statement can be verified in Scripture, I can also see how this statement can be misconstrued and misinterpreted, with vast and dangerous ramifications. I don’t wish to promote the fallacies of Fundamentalism nor the heresies of Universalism, and therefore, I feel obligated to expound in some degree upon these words. In light of that, I give my explanation. Brennan Manning’s quote follows:
The gospel of grace announces: forgiveness precedes repentance. The sinner is accepted before he pleads for mercy. It is already granted. He need only receive it. Total amnesty. Gratuitous pardon.1
I believe that this quote is hammering home the security and assurance one can have of forgiveness. I say “can” because it’s crucial to note that forgiveness isn’t yours personally until you’ve been made to see that you need it by the working of the law. “The law kills.” (2 Cor 3:6) The law of God condemns us, saying that we’re not righteous nor ever can be by anything we try to do. And once we’re made to see and acknowledge and accept that fact, by the Holy Spirit, the gospel swoops in and announces that “gratuitous pardon” has already been made on your behalf. This isn’t to say you don’t have to repent to be forgiven. By no means! Rather, that your forgiveness has already been paid for by the Son of God on your behalf. Therefore, when you repent, you’re not unlocking Jesus’s secret compartment of forgiving grace. No, you’re believing in something, laying hold of something that’s already there, already finished.
And so, in that sense, forgiveness precedes repentance in that it’s already been bought and paid for by the blood of Christ. There’s nothing more you need to do to “get” pardoned, indeed, there’s nothing you can do. Just believe. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (Jn 6:29) The only thing that’s required in the gospel for the amnesty of amorous sinners is belief and rest in a finished work. “The Spirit gives life,” Paul continues. (2 Cor 3:6) The gospel grants life simply because Christ has paid for it with his own death. There’s no need or cause for you to fear or worry about attaining that life, it’s already be won by Jesus’s death and resurrection.
But, further still, despite the forgiveness of God being previously tendered, it’s not yours unless you’re made to see that you need it and, indeed, repent and believe in it. If I were to give you a gift in a box, and I say that it’s filled with one million dollars, but you don’t open it, are you a millionaire? No, because you haven’t actually accepted the gift offered, but instead kept it closed, unopened, unenjoyed. Sort of like Schrödinger’s cat.
Such is God’s forgiving grace: a gift preveniently tendered and proffered to all, to “whosoever will believe.” (Jn 11:26; Rom 10:13) It rests secure on the foundation of Jesus’s completed salvation-work on the cross but is yet to be yours personally and individually and effectually until the law has done it’s killing work, and you are made to see that it can be yours by merely repenting and believing in Jesus’s perfect substitution and righteous imputation. Having a gift such as this, that is, the gospel of grace, and yet not taking it, never grasping it, is, like C. S. Lewis contends, playing with mud pies when an invitation to a beach house has already been handed to you.
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.2
But more than that (if you can believe there’s more!), the invitation has been given and the rent paid in full for an eternal stay! “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Why, then, are you still playing in the mud? Why are you yet rolling in dirt and filth when grace and favor are freely offered to you at this very moment? Don’t you see that you’re groveling in a sty when you’ve been cleared for entry into the Kingdom! Why would you yet refuse the invitation and continue in dirt?
To you, Christian, I leave you with the endorsement to realize that the forgiveness you enjoy was paid in full before you were even born, by the Son who cried out, “It is finished.” You’ve never done anything to win this saving, forgiving, redeeming grace, save provide the sin that makes it necessary. In like manner, there’s nothing you can do to lose it. You’re resting solely and forever on Jesus’s finished work.
To you, unbeliever, I wish to urge you with the crucial, urgent nature of your repentance! This gift of grace has been tendered and extended by Christ, but why are you yet waiting? Why are you refusing? Allow God’s Spirit to work in you and open your eyes to your desperate need. Then cry out to Jesus, “God, I’m a sinner, I want to be saved — I want to open the gift.” And you’ll hear his reply, “Go ahead, it’s yours. Total amnesty. Gratuitous pardon.”
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2000), 181.
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.